Tag Archives: Selerang Barracks

“They Won’t Let You Go”

By Sears Eldredge

When the first draft of 3000 Australian (“A Force”) troops were sent from Changi to Burma on 14 May, it should have included pianist Jack Boardman along with Major Jim Jacobs and other non-concert party musicians and entertainers.

And I was quite happy about [it] [recalled Boardman] because I was going away with my mates. And then word came that I was to be taken off the draft because we’d started to give those little scratch concerts around. And “Blackjack” had said, “Anybody who’s entertaining is not to go.”

So I went and saw the officer and said, “Can you get me back on the list,” I said, “because I don’t want to be stuck here with a lot of people I don’t know? I want to be with my mates.” Anyway, he came back and he said, “I did my best for you, but,” he said, “they won’t let you go. That’s the end of it.”[i]

During their years of imprisonment in Changi, Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel “Blackjack” Galleghan would protect the members of his A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party from these overseas drafts. He insisted they be kept in Changi to keep the morale of his troops there high.

Before leaving for Burma, Major Jacobs transferred leadership of the Aussie concert party to Val Mack, who was given a field promotion to Captain to head the entertainment group.

[To learn more about the activities of the Australians sent to Burma and the extraordinary entertainment they produced against overwhelming odds Up Country, read Chapter 3, “Jungle Shows: Burma,” in my online book.]

As “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” continued their weekly touring shows in the Selarang Area and Roberts Hospital, “Happy” Harry Smith became famous not only for his pre-war tall stilt and “tit and bum” drag acts, but for taunting his fellow POWs in the best tradition of barracks’ humor with the mournful cry, “You’ll never get off the island!” “No matter how black the news nor how depressing the atmosphere,” Russell Braddon recalled, “Harry Smith . . . had only to turn his long face full at the audience and wail the apparent truism, ‘You’ll never get off the island,’ for complete hilarity to be restored.”[ii]


[i] Boardman, J. Interview, 37.

[ii] Braddon, 177.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

Touring Within Your Area

By Sears Eldredge

During April, the Australian concert party continued to tour a different show every week to the outdoor stages in the Selarang Barracks Area as well as two matinees to their sick and wounded in Roberts Hospital.

There were separate wards for battle casualties, dysentery, TB, malaria and so on [wrote Jack Boardman]. 

 I remember Happy Harry in his clown outfit on stilts singing and dancing in the dysentery ward. The blokes were really too sick to enjoy it but seemed to appreciate the efforts to entertain them.

In the earliest of these two concerts, I remember two patients who had battle wounds and were skeletal — one called Johnson weighing 42 pounds or three stones, who survived and came home, and his mate almost as gaunt. The smell of gangrene was strong in that ward.[i]

New songs and sketches were mixed in with previously performed materials to keep both the performers and the performances fresh. Boardman remembered one humorous incident that illustrates the hazards of performing on different stage heights:

It was funny, one time before we got our theatre going, one of our venues was around at the convalescent depot . . . And so Keith was doing this skit where little Jackie had played up, and he [Keith as the School Ma’am Teacher] was going to spank him, you see. So he pulled him onto his knees and hit him hearty. But he’d forgotten to put his underpants on — Keith . . . and when he sat down facing the audience with his legs apart, all was revealed. The audience was laughing and laughing. And Keith said, “Gee, I’m going over well tonight.”[ii]

But coming up with new material for a weekly change of program would soon prove to be a huge challenge for the Australian entertainers.


[i] Boardman, J. Letter, 18 August 02.

[ii] Boardman, J. Interview, Typed Notes.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

The A.I.F. 9th Division was quartered in the sprawling Selarang Barracks Area in Changi which before the war had been home to the Gordon Highlanders. When Jim Jacobs, the concert party’s O/ic, and Lieutenant Val Mack, his assistant, searched among the surviving Australian POWs for former concert party members, they found that, “the whole of the previous [pre-war] A. I. F. Concert Party was still available. These men formed the nucleus of the new party, and to them we added many new performers whom we discovered in the camp.”[i]

Their female impersonators would be tap-dancing “Judy” Garland, and singers, Ted Druitt, Charlie Wiggins, and John Wood. According to Jack Boardman, neither Druitt nor Wiggins “made up to what you would term an attractive female; Ted was too tall. Charlie did good impersonations of some film identities, such as Zazu Pitts.”[ii] John Wood would play the important “glamour” roles.

To help them become more believable, female impersonators were given permission to let their hair grow long; they took it upon themselves to shave their chests and legs.

Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

George Sprod, the irreverent Aussie cartoonist of Changi POW life, drew a cartoon illustrating what happened when one of these female impersonators strolled around the camp. If at first these female impersonators were objects of amusement or harassment, those who played the “glamour” roles convincingly, very quickly became substitute objects of desire.  


[i] Jacobs, 16.

[ii] Boardman, J. “Notes on Val Mack.”

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22